All About Dinghy Towing Part II – Tow Equipment & Supplemental Brakes
I’ve kept you in suspense all day (I’m sure), but finally we come to the 2nd exciting part of our towing mini-series. This is where we get to the guts of the topic, so to speak, and talk about how you actually attach your tow vehicle to your motorhome. There are a ton of ways to do this and I won’t cover all of them, but I’ll try to go through the most popular choices and finish off with what we went went with in our set-up. Oh and be warned…this is loooong…
1/ Towing Options
There are 3 main kinds of tow options out there for your car.
- Towing “4-Down” – If you have a car that can tow “4-down” (all 4 wheels on the ground) then it makes sense to exercise that option.
PROs – Towing 4-down is (by far) the easiest way to tow a car. There’s less fiddling in camp and minimal external equipment.
CONs – Towing 4-down can be a more expensive option and requires an attachment on your car, plus potentially other installed equipment. Some cars may need special modifications (e.g. drive-shaft disconnects or lube pump) to allow 4-down towing.
- Using a Dolly– For cars that can’t be towed “4-down” or for those looking for a more flexible option a dolly may make sense. Dolly’s are designed to lift the front 2 wheels off the ground, leaving the back 2 down.
PROs – Dolly’s can be used on any front-wheel-drive automatic without modifications to the car. One dolly can be shared between multiple cars.
CONs – More fiddling in camp and an extra piece of equipment to carry around and store at your campsite.
Using a Trailer – In this case you drive the car into a separate trailer and tow that behind the RV. This is a popular option with classic cars.
PROs – Any kind of car can be towed this way without modification, and the trailer provides protection from road damage.
CONs – A large, bulky extra piece of equipment on the road which affects your overall weight (GCWR) and may also limit where you’re able to stay.
As you can imagine, we went with the 4-down option. In our mind it’s the easiest and most compact way to tow your car. There’s no extra equipment to haul around, nothing to “store” in camp and set-up/take-down is a cinch easily handled by one person. For the rest of the post I’ll focus on the equipment for 4-down towing.
2/ Chosing a Tow Bar
If you’ve decided to tow 4-down one of your first questions will be what kind of tow bar to get. There are 5 main things to look for in a tow bar:
- Weight Ratings – Make sure to chose a tow bar that matches or exceeds the weight of your tow vehicle. This should be true of all your tow equipment.
- Rigid vs Self-Aligning – The cheapest type of tow-bar is a rigid A-frame, but this is bulky and requires the car to be precisely aligned behind the frame before you can hook-up. Most modern towbars are “self-aligning” meaning that you can adjust/extend the arms individually to line up with your car. The self-aligning types do not require precise alignment, are far easier to use and can be folded up compactly when not hooked up.
- Car Mounted vs Motorhome Mounted – Some tow-bars are mounted to your car while others are mounted on the motorhome. The car-mounted bars fold up and stay on the front of your car when you’re not hooked up. Motorhome mounted bars fold up and stay on the motorhome. The motorhome type are (by far) the most popular kind these days.
- Release Handles – The newer tow bars all have some kind of quick-release handle that allows you to easily release the “lock” on the tow bar once you decide to unhook. This allows the towbar to be easily unhooked no matter what the angle of the bar or car. RVers without this option often complain about the car getting “stuck” and having to fiddle around to get it loose. In my mind having this little feature is key.
- Baseplates – If you chose a motorhome-mounted bar, you’ll need some kind of baseplate on your tow vehicle to which you attach the bar. Baseplates are custom designed for each tow vehicle and some are more visible than others. The most visible type are bolted right on the front of your vehicle. The least visible are custom deals welded neatly underneath the car.
3/ Supplemental Braking
Once you’ve decided on a tow bar your next challenge is whether or not to get a supplemental braking system. The way this works is that when you brake in the RV, a brake is also applied to your tow car. There’s alot of debate on this topic amongst RVers. Some states legally require them (over a certain weight), but some do not or the towing laws are ambiguous/confusing. 10 years ago supplemental braking was unheard of and many RVers have gone for years without.
Personally we considered this a “must have”. Our 400hp diesel engine is more than capable of handling the load but I do not like the idea of 3,500 lbs pushing on the back of the RV, particularly in an emergency braking situation. When we drive in the mountains I can feel the effect of the supplemental toad brakes, and if we’re ever in a situation where the car gets loose from the motorhome I know our system will stop it dead. It’s a peace of mind that I wouldn’t go without. Here’s some things to consider in a system:
- Portable vs Permanently Installed – Some braking systems require that you set-up and remove equipment inside the tow car everytime you use them. These are portable from one car to another, but it does mean that you haul around the equipment. Others systems are permanently installed. These require more serious up-front installation, but have the advantage of no extra equipment and easier set-up/take-down in camp.
- Pre-Set vs Proportional – The simplest systems are pre-set braking systems. These simply apply a pre-set (fixed) amount of braking upon receiving a signal from the RV that its brakes have been applied. Proportional systems go one further and will brake in proportion to either the rate of deceleration or the pressure applied on the brake in the motorhome (so the harder you brake up-front, the harder the brake applied in the toad). The latter provides some extra safety margin and is worth having in the mountains.
- Direct vs Vacuum Assist – If you’re going for a permanent installation you have the option of getting more fancy with either direct or vacuum assist systems.
-> Direct Systems provide proportional braking, but with a little extra pizzaz. They connect directly into your motorhome’s air or hydraulic brake system providing much better/faster response time. These kinds of systems are a good choice for heavier tow vehicles.
-> Vacuum (Power) Assist Systems are another slant. They activate the power-assist function of your tow vehicle’s brakes which means the brake pedal is depressed with the same intensity as if you were physically behind its wheel at the time. They are not typically proportional systems (there is one exception I know of – see below), but they allow for much smoother braking with less wear and tear on the toad. This is a popular choice for long-distance towing.
- Sensitivity Adjustments – Most new braking systems allow you to set thresholds on when they “kick in” and/or control the sensitivity of braking pressure that gets to the toad. Some allow you make this adjustment from the motorhome.
- Breakaway System – Most of the nicer braking systems offer an in-built breakaway system that stops your car dead if it separates from the motorhome. On some systems this not available or is an optional add-on.
- Audible & Visual Communication – The better braking systems give you some kind of audible and/or visual alarm in the motorhome when they activate the brakes or if the toad gets loose. Communication from the toad to the motorhome can be wired or wireless. This is a really nice safety feature that lets you know exactly what the brakes are doing.
There are several manufacturers of braking systems including SMI, Blue Ox, Roadmaster, Brakebuddy, US Gear and others. This page provides a good intro to supplemental braking and this page has a neat overview of manufacturer choices.
4/ And Our Answer Was….?
Assuming you’ve survived reading the post I’ll give you the drumroll and reveal our choices.
For tow-bar it was a bit of a toss-up between the 2 “big” manufacturers. In the end we chose the Roadmaster Falcon All-Terrain. It can handle 6,000 lbs (more than enough for our 3,500lb CR-V), is flexible, has self-adjusting arms and includes that all-important easy-release lever (Roadmaster call it the “freedom latch”) .
For our baseplate we chose a custom option welded directly onto the under-frame of the CR-V. It’s barely visible and rock solid.
For supplemental braking the choice was alot more complicated. We knew up-front that we wanted a permanently installed system and we really liked the idea of vacuum assist, but we also wanted some kind of proportional braking as well as the ability to adjust sensitivity and have audible alarms in the motorhome in case of issues. An impossible wish-list perhaps? As it turns out the US Gear Unified Tow Brake (TV-1000) provides it all. US Gear are, in fact, the only manufacturer I know that provides both vacuum assist and proportional braking (sensed via deceleration rate of the coach). Not the cheapest option out there, but a really neat and elegant solution. By the way the alarm system was key and has already saved our toad from accidental damage a couple of times by alerting us to a bad hookup and an unexpected application of the brake (without the alarm our toad brakes would’ve fried).
The entire lot was installed by County RV in Santee Lakes, CA.
So far we’ve been very happy with our system. Set-up is a simple matter of attaching the flexible arms of the tow-bar, plugging in the wiring harness and inserting the breakaway line. It’s visually a very simple solution, doesn’t require us to haul around any extra equipment, packs away easy and works flawlessly.
And if you read all that to the end I salute you. Back to regular programming tomorow….